Welcoming Change in Merrifield

Mattress Discounters and Tires Plus are among the businesses off Lee Highway. The highway is included in the Merrifield Town Center development plan.
Mattress Discounters and Tires Plus are among the businesses off Lee Highway. The highway is included in the Merrifield Town Center development plan. (Photos By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Efforts to revitalize Merrifield, a cluttered crossroads of carwashes, auto shops and a huge equipment rental yard, continued this month with the introduction of a proposal to build a town center of shops, offices, condominiums and a new movie complex at Lee Highway and Gallows Road.

Unlike other parts of Fairfax County such as Tysons Corner and areas within walking distance of the Vienna Metro station, Merrifield's ongoing urbanization is yielding little opposition from neighbors worried about dense new development and traffic. At a Planning Commission public hearing last week, most speakers lauded the Merrifield Town Center proposal as a welcome infusion of life for the growing number of townhouse and condominium dwellers in the corridor.

"Merrifield needs a town center, and this is a very creative proposal," said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), whose district includes Merrifield and who testified at the hearing. "It does help to promote pedestrian access and housing for people who actually work in the area."

Merrifield's prime location -- just outside the Capitol Beltway, just south of Interstate 66 and a little more than a half-mile from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station -- prompted county officials several years ago to develop a far-reaching plan to transform the area from a sprawling, semi-industrial hodgepodge into a concentration of homes, offices and shopping.

Even before the town center proposal, the area's transformation was underway. Last year, the Board of Supervisors continued its efforts to bring dense, urban-style living to Fairfax's five Metro stations by approving a development of up to 720 apartments and stores on a 15-acre parking lot at the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Station. A relatively new Marriott hotel, apartment tower and condominiums stand across from the busy Orange Line station.

And south on Gallows Road, adjacent to where the town center would rise, two high-rise condominium buildings are under construction. They would connect with the town center, if it is approved.

Although large, the Merrifield Town Center proposal conforms to the county's plan for the area because it would be significantly less dense than developments slated for land closer to the Metro station. The partners behind it -- Edens & Avant, a developer with offices in Maryland, and National Amusements Inc., owner of an existing 14-screen movie theater on the property -- are asking to build more than 1.6 million square feet of residences, shops and offices on the roughly 30-acre property.

The project would include at least 500 condominiums, a new movie theater complex, shops and possibly a hotel, according to the application. The developer also proposes building a grid of streets to allow traffic to flow into the town center. And the application calls for 12 percent of housing units to be affordable or workforce housing, possibly including moderately priced homes targeted specifically to health-care professionals such as nurses working at nearby Inova Fairfax Hospital.

Fairfax Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), said the project has stirred less controversy than last year's rezoning of land near the Vienna Metro station for a couple of reasons. First, the largely industrial area has fewer residential neighborhoods, where fears of higher-density development tend to take root. And second, most of the younger, condo-dwelling professionals moving into the area would welcome the prospect of more walkability and evening life, she said. It doesn't hurt, she added, that an equipment rental yard on Lee Highway would be removed if the project is approved.

"Merrifield has been a somewhat different case," Smyth said. "People have been looking at things like the United Rentals yard for a long time and saying, 'Yuck.' They're looking at this and thinking, 'Yeah, you know what? I would really like a new restaurant I could go to and a new movie theater, instead of looking at that yard.' "

Smyth said the proposal won't necessarily sail through the regulatory process; numerous details such as the configuration of new streets will be vetted thoroughly by the staff and the Planning Commission and then by the Board of Supervisors. But the overall concept fits in with the goals of the board-approved Merrifield plan, meaning something approximating the proposal is likely to be approved.

Smyth is not offering an opinion of the project before it reaches the Board of Supervisors, but she said she will be looking for how well the project provides a new street grid, affordable housing and a mix of uses.

The project could reach the board this year.

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